Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904)

Photo of half-smiling woman, aged 60s, with swept-back hair wearing fur-collared coat.

Photo from ‘Life of Frances Power Cobbe’ 1894 (Wikimedia)

Anglo-Irish Frances Power Cobbe was a writer, philanthropist, religious thinker, anti-vivisection campaigner and leading women’s suffrage activist. Born in Donabate, Ireland, in 1822 into a prominent Irish landed family, she was educated mainly at home by governesses.

As a child Cobbe often stayed in Bath with her maternal grandmother at 29 Royal Crescent. She first travelled to Bristol aged 14 in 1836 en route to boarding school in Brighton.

In 1858 she came to live and work in Bristol with educational and social reformer Mary Carpenter at her girls reformatory school at The Red Lodge, Park Row, and at the ragged school and boys Sunday school at St Jame’s Back, Lewin’s Mead.

Cobbe desired a more intimate relationship with Carpenter than Carpenter was able to offer, and Carpenter’s complete lack of interest in creature comforts was intolerable to Cobbe. She lodged with Carpenter for nearly a year before moving to lodgings at Belgrave House, Pembroke Grove, Durdham Down. Cobbe also had intense lesbian feelings towards scientist and polymath Mary Somerville who was 42 years her senior. Frances wrote how Mary once “kissed me tenderly and gave me her photograph”. Cobbe felt “such tender affection” for Sommerville that “sitting beside her on the sofa … I could hardly keep myself from caressing her”.

From 1861-62 Cobbe spent time in Italy, staying for some time with retired American actress Charlotte Saunders Cushman who had created an expatriate community of lesbian artists and writers in Rome. Cushman wrote to a friend “Miss Cobbe is making great love to Hattie [sculptor Harriet Hosmer]…. who is so fickle she makes me heartsick”.

While in Rome, Cobbe met Welsh sculptor Mary Lloyd who was to become her lifelong partner. They met in 1861 and lived together as a couple from 1864 until Lloyd’s death in 1896. They lived in London and in 1884 moved to Hengwrt, a mansion near Dolgellau in Wales. Cobbe referred to Mary as “my wife”, “my husband” or “dear friend”.

Their friends included naturalist Charles Darwin, philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill, poets Alfred Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning, and the actress, writer and abolitionist Fanny Kemble, all of whom recognised Frances and Mary as a couple.

Frances was a founder member of the West of England Suffrage Society formed in 1868 at the Bristol home of prison reform campaigner and MP Matthew Davenport Hill. She was on the first committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage formed in 1872. Frances also founded the National Anti Vivisection Society in 1875, the first in the world to campaign against animal experiments. Her work led to the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876. Mary was an executive of the Home for Lost Dogs which later became Battersea Dogs Home. A friend wrote that Frances and Mary’s partnership had been “thirty-four years of a friendship as nearly perfect as any earthly love may be. A friendship in which there was never a doubt or break, or even a rough word, and which grew more tender as evening closed”.

Mary Lloyd’s death affected Cobbe greatly. A friend wrote “The sorrow of Miss Lloyd’s death changed the whole aspect of existence for Miss Cobbe. The joy of life had gone. It had been such a friendship as is rarely seen, perfect in love, sympathy and mutual understanding”. They were buried together in St Illtud church cemetery, Llanelltyd, Wales.

In his 1907 book Bristol and Its Famous Associations Stanley Hutton described Frances Power Cobbe as “one of the advanced, who by her fearless advocacy, both by tongue and pen, did much to in her life time to ameliorate the conditions of her sex.”

In 2018 her name and image were included on the plinth of the statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London.

Jonathan Rowe, 2022

Wikipedia: Frances Power Cobbe
Elisa Rolle ‘Queerplaces’: Frances Power Cobbe
Life of Frances Power Cobbe by herself, Volume I (1894), Volume II.

This is a shortened version of an article published in the Bristol Times supplement of the Bristol Post, 29/11/2022.

Photograph from Life of Frances Power Cobbe, 1894 (Creative Commons BY4.0)